Sunday, April 12, 2015

Friendly fire.........

"It's shocking how fast the fire took hold," stated witness Heather Taylor.

On April 10 2014, the last demonstration firing of the trebuchet at Warwick castle came a little too close to the boathouse and lit it afire.  It appears as though sparks from the flaming cannonball fired from the wooden trebuchet landed on the thatched roof of the boathouse and at 5:45 the fire department was called to put the blazing building out.  Hundreds of tourists scrambled up the bank, many of whom were families and children because they had no idea if the fire would spread.  The fire was quickly put out after three engines and about 30 firefighters arrived at the scene.

The trebuchet is believed to have been first built by the Chinese around 300 BC and evolved from the stave sling.  It is powered entirely by gravity through the use of a counterweight.  The force of the counterweight dropping forces the throwing arm, which is usually four to six times the length of the counterweight arm, to multiply the arm and projectile.  The biggest difference between a trebuchet and a catapult is that it also uses a sling for the projectile giving it even more throwing power.

It is a highly accurate, powerful siege machine that required expert building and design skills.  They first show in historical records in England around 1216 they continued to be refined through the centuries.  They were still in use even after the introduction of gun powder in Europe.  The largest trebuchet ever built is believed to be the Warwolf that was ordered built in Scotland by King Edward Longshanks for use in the siege of Stirling Castle in the late thirteenth century.

Current measurements estimate that it was 300-400 feet tall and frightened the Scots so much that they tried to surrender before the siege ever began.  King Edward though seemed to want to at least give this monster a chance to work and turned down the surrender request.  He proceeded to accurately hurl 300 missiles that destroyed part of the curtain wall of the castle.  The average trebuchet could accurately hurl 200 pound projectiles 1,000 yards of more.

Not only were these incredibly accurate but they also allowed for any number of projectiles to be loaded into the slings and hurled.  Besides rocks and cannonballs to destroy walls, they were often loaded with objects to terrify those under siege.  These could have included, dead bodies, cattle or pigs, burning oil or sand, anything else that would burn or even body parts.

There came a time though when the cannon took the place of the trebuchet, most likely because it was much more mobile and the plans for construction were lost in history.  In 1989 Dr Peter Vemming constructed the first working trebuchet after years of research and planning.  He used notes and drawings from the 13th century to recreate it out of oak with a flexible ash throwing arm.

In 2005 his plans for the trebuchet at the Medieval Center in Nykobing Denmark were used to build the largest trebuchet in existence.  It was constructed so that it was historically accurate and comprised of more than 300 pieces.  It stands 59 feet tall, weighs 22 tons and routinely hurls 80 pounds about 1,000 feet, each and every day.  Unfortunately, this past week it also demonstrated how well it can destroy the newly renovated boathouse at Warwick Castle  Warwick England.

The trebuchet uses four men running in the hamster wheels to wind down the throwing arm.  Once it has been secured down with a pin, they have to unwind the rope that is wound around the axle so that it will fire correctly. once it is down the sling can be attached and loaded in a channel between the hamster wheels.  It is then cleared and the man firing pulls the pin by a rope remotely to release the arm and it's projectile.

It is incredibly accurate but the time it takes to set it up for firing prevents it from being anything close to a rapid fire weapon.  This may be why it was loaded with a few hundred pounds each time and it is devastating to have that kind of load incoming.  A trebuchet was also not a very mobile military piece and most often were built on the spot of the siege to fit the range needed.  They could be disassembled but could use up 20-30 wagons to move from the site of the battle.

Warwick Castle was built in 1068 by William the Conqueror and the original castle was rebuilt in the 12th century.  It was finally granted to Sir Fulke Greville in 1604 and it was the property of the Greville family, the earls of Warwick until it was sold in 1978 to the Tussauds Group.  It had spent several centuries as a country home but with the advent of tourism and the interest in castles, it was finally sold.  The boathouse was originally built in 1896 as an addition to the castle by the 5th Earl of Warwick, Francis Greville and had recently been restored

Today you are most likely to see working trebuchets during a punkin chunkin contest where various classes of machine are used to hurl pumpkins as far as possible.  In 2013 the trebuchet Yankee Siege II set a new world record by tossing a pumpkin that weighs between 8-10 pounds 2,835.81 feet.  That is almost 8 football fields long and while it won't crush the stone walls of a castle it is darn impressive from technology that is centuries old.  In comparison, the world record for a compressed air cannon in punkin chunkin is 4,694.68.  These cannons sport a huge tube that uses a combination of compressed air and it's length to shoot the pumpkin much like a standard cannon would and even with it's technological advances, it has not doubled the distance achieved by a trebuchet.

Hat tip to Bayou Renaissance Man for the tip on this story

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